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Jewish Ways to Make Meaning of the Pandemic’s Anniversary

Last week, my 11-year-old daughter went back to her school campus for the first time in 50 weeks. As we prepared for her return, we cleaned out her backpack, which was frozen in time: It still held the remnants of a class field trip taken the first week of March 2020; her sunscreen, hat, playing cards, and souvenir pen all stark reminders of the moment just before we hibernated into our own silos.

We replaced these relics with the folders and books she needed to bring back to school. She readjusted the straps, already worn-in to the contours of her shoulders, and after what has surely been the longest shortest time, her backpack was ready to be put to use once again. 

We are currently in a stretch of time marking the one-year anniversary of when the world as we knew it shut down. Whether you count by the Jewish calendar and remember Purim as the last time we gathered as a community, or whether you count by the secular calendar and consider March 12 the last day of pre-pandemic life, it’s been a year. Twelve months of Covid-19 means we’ve endured 12 months of Zoom school and camp, of missed birthday parties and weddings, of uncertainty and disorientation, of deep loss and grief. There is a lot of emotion as we approach this anniversary.

I stopped using the word “unprecedented” a long time ago  — it was so often repeated by everyone, everywhere, that it felt trite by April 2020. But it really is the appropriate word to describe the experience of this past year. What’s more, something that is unprecedented has repercussions. We know that our brains are pattern-seeking. As adults, our patterns of behavior have certainly changed since the pandemic began — for example, many adults’ social circles have shrunk, as we no longer see acquaintances or co-workers, and we focus just on the people with whom we have deeper relationships. And I know many of us are concerned about the patterns developing in children.

I’m the head of school at Jewish day school in Los Angeles, and recently I sat on a virtual panel of international school leaders. As educators from Italy, Sri Lanka, and Nairobi all spoke, we found solidarity in what we are collectively witnessing, whether students were attending school in person or via Zoom: We’re all seeing increases in childhood anxieties. We see regression of social, emotional, and developmental milestones. We see children much more comfortable with a handful of peers than in a large group. We see children more cautious to approach others. For our younger children, especially, this pandemic year represents a large percentage of their life, and therefore of their experience of living. Our older children comprehend the events and ramifications of the pandemic in ways that will inform who they become as adults, just as the Depression and World War II did for our grandparents.

I don’t mean to paint a picture that’s all gloom and doom — there have been some beautiful consequences of this year as well. In the beforetimes, my husband and I both worked long hours, and having both of us at home to do the bedtime routine was a luxury. Now, however, our weekday evenings are filled with family dinners and unstructured time in which to enjoy one another’s company, laugh together, and slow down. At school, I’ve had loads of conversations with parents who feel acute relief to have been granted precious reprieve from after-school activities, birthday parties, or Sunday sports. Our community has banded together. And our children have (often) learned to get along with siblings they didn’t necessarily enjoy as much when they had other options.

Still, I think it’s essential that as we come upon the one-year anniversary of the time when all our lives changed, and when all of these new patterns of behavior began to take shape, we mark it with intention.

Marking time is important for all humans to do; it’s one way that we make meaning out of our experiences. But marking time is especially important in Judaism. We mark a week, a month, and a year after a person dies. We celebrate holidays based on historical events that happened thousands of years ago. In fact, the Jewish calendar is so full of time specific events that we acknowledge the one month of the year, Heshvan — which usually falls in October/November —  in which they are absent.

It’s crucial that we also mark time in the pandemic world — which has in so many ways felt somehow separate from time as we usually know it —  to honor this significant epoch in our lives. It’s equally important to remind ourselves that it’s not all “blursday.”

But what does it look like to mark time when you are actively in the midst of the thing you are marking? What is our goal? And how do we commemorate this one-year anniversary in a way that gives us — and our children — strength to continue navigating through the ongoing pandemic? We are not in a moment (yet) in which we can say, “That’s behind us; what did we get out of it?”

And yet, we can still reflect on the year, consider what we have learned and lost and gained, and make decisions about how to move forward. Here are some of my suggestions on how to do this:

Remember that this, too, shall pass (really!). While we know that our brains are pattern seeking, it is also true that the neuroplasticity of our brains can shift. I hear so many parents who are worried about how this pandemic is impacting their children’s development. While our children’s growth has shifted because of the past year’s events, we need to remember that the patterns we have now are not the patterns we will have forever.

Do something to commemorate the year. You might want to take a Zoom-free day, write a letter to your future self, find a special hike, or mark the time with silence. Specifically naming the anniversary, and doing something to mark it as a specific moment in time is what helps us to make meaning and to categorize this time in our life.

Name what has helped you. As a school, we are planning to make time capsules with our students in which they are each sharing one resource that has helped through the last year. You don’t have to make an actual artifact to think about who and what has kept you grounded.

Celebrate what you have accomplished. Many of us weren’t sure how we would get through two weeks of distance learning. Now, of course, we have managed 50-plus weeks of living in a Covid world. Remember that accomplishments come in all shapes and sizes (and not just 1,000-piece puzzles and sourdough bread starters). Try to recognize the full range of ways in which you’ve gotten through this time.

It’s going to take time to fully unpack the meaning of this chapter, for ourselves and for our children — but that is work for another time. For now, we are still in the midst of the pandemic and, at this point, it is important that we simply find ways to commemorate one year of these unprecedented times.

As for myself, I am making a commitment to find time to breathe in some lessons from this year. I intend to feel gratitude for the people and resources that have sustained me; to grieve the events I wish I were attending as spring begins to bloom; to ensure I have enough sustenance to continue on the journey; and to feel gratitude for the fact that a certain 11-year-old’s messy backpack will once again be flung through our front door.

Header image design by Lior Zaltzman. Original image by mikroman6/Getty Images.

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